Clinton: Syrian rebels getting ‘messages’ from Pakistan region known as Qaeda haven

February 4, 2013

(AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)

About halfway down a New York Times' story on Hillary Clinton's tenure as secretary of state, the paper reports a disturbing new detail about the Syrian opposition. According to Clinton, rebels in Syria have been receiving "messages" from a part of Pakistan where al-Qaeda's core leaders are believed to be hiding out:

She added: “Having said all that, [Syrian leader Bashar] Assad is still killing. The opposition is increasingly being represented by Al Qaeda extremist elements.” She also said that the opposition was getting messages from the ungoverned areas in Pakistan where some of the Qaeda leadership was believed to be hiding — a development she called “deeply distressing.”

It's no secret that, during the course of the now two-year conflict in Syria, some very nasty rebel groups have emerged there. Some of those groups profess extreme and violent ideologies; one prominent rebel group, Jabhat al-Nusra, is reportedly linked to al-Qaeda's Iraq-based branch.

But direct communication between Syrian rebels and the core al-Qaeda leadership holed up in Pakistan would be potentially far more significant for two reasons.

First, this would suggest that some rebels have already aligned themselves with al-Qaeda's global jihad movement, which they could pursue in all sorts of awful ways if and when the civil war ends. That bodes very poorly for post-Assad Syria, with groups like al-Nusra a potential threat to more than just Syrians.

Second, it's a bad sign because, after several bruising years for al-Qaeda, the group could renew its reach through a potential Syrian proxy. The Washington Post's Greg Miller and Joby Warrick reported this weekend on why U.S. counterterrorism officials are so worried about Jabhat al-Nusra's links to al-Qaeda:

Al-Nusra, as it is known, was linked to suicide attacks on Syrian security installations last year that also killed dozens of civilians. Unlike rival groups, it has called attention to its al-Qaeda ties and is thought to have attracted as many as 10,000 fighters.

Its short-term objective — the ouster of Assad — puts it in uncomfortable alignment with U.S. interests. But U.S. intelligence officials said they are gravely concerned that al-Nusra militants, including some who hold western passports, might move elsewhere in the Middle East or into Europe when the rebellion in Syria ends.

They are a “highly effective opposition force,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said of the group, which seeks to impose Islamic rule. “If they don’t have a role to play [in a future Syrian government] where does that capability disperse?”

In other words, what do these fighters, who now have fighting experience and possibly even a line to al-Qaeda's central command, do once the civil war ends? It's a scary question.

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Max Fisher | February 3, 2013